How to use music to make better presentations

It’s a tricky thing. There are some huge advantages to using music, but some pretty significant pitfalls, too. So here’s your guide to using music well, and avoiding the things can can go wrong.

Why use music?

Music is intended and designed to be, almost universally, an emotional phenomena. That means you can use it to shift and enhance moods in your audience before your presentation… and during it or after it if you like!

Not sure it works? Never been to the movies then! This simple example messes around with Pirates of the Caribbean to play with the impact!

Want to shift the atmosphere towards more positive? Add upbeat music! Want your audience to be a bit more contemplative, use slower, gentle background music. It really is as simple as that.

In other words, you can use music to work on your audience’s emotions in the same way as good slides can do, visually. The disadvantage of music is that you can’t really use it on its own, unlike good slides, but the advantage of that is that you can use it in the background, alongside other things.

Pro-tip. Don’t use it for things like “trying to get people to learn more”. As far as I can tell from the research papers I’ve read, that not really a thing so much as something people made up to sell to pregnant women who were desperate to give their baby a head start in life.XXX

Given the pro-tip above, the best things to do with music are emotional manipulation of your audience – I can’t claim the following ideas are written in tablets of stone, but I’ve found them very useful over 12 years as a professional presenter.

Atmosphere before your presentation

As your audience arrive in dribs and drabs, it’s easy for them to feel exposed and out of place. Many audiences can feel as nervous about being in the audience as presenters feel about being at the front of the room! With that in mind, appropriate music can do wonders for making people feel welcome and give the room a buzz or an atmosphere before you start your presentation.

It’s probably too much of a dirty trick for lots of people, but I even know one presenter who mixes in backgrounds of groups of people chatting to give an atmosphere! Machiavellian, I know, but I have to admit it’s very effective (now that they’ve got it mixed right!).

Wind up to the start of your presentation

This is something of a clever variation of the first idea and it works like this. Start your background music with just enough to have the right effect but nothing too overt, but as the start of your presentation gets closer, shift the style (or even the volume) of the music so that it “builds up”.

It’s a technique beloved of theatre directors, and with good reason – because it works. You can carefully build anticipation of what you’re going to say with clever use of the music.

A confidence booster for you

I don’t use work on music, ‘cos I’m not that pretentious but I do have pieces of music I like to hear played. Obviously your mileage will vary but hearing “I am the Doctor” always puts my head in a good place, ready to present. It’s a great piece of music for me for a lot of personal reasons and I’m lucky that it works technically, too, as it’s the right tempo for when I want to use it, and sufficiently obscure for it not to distract people (see below).

I tend to include it in some pre-presentation play-lists, close to when the presentation is due to start.

Filler during your presentation

I’m not a fan of this kind of thing, because it smacks of lazy presenting but there are times when it’s entirely appropriate to ask your audience to think or converse amongst themselves. A slide with background music is a god-send for moments like this.

It covers any embarrassment your audience members might feel at first, it makes it look like you’re doing this deliberately and not as padding or in panic (trust me, I’ve seen presentations that do both of these!).

alarm clocks for timing your presentation during rehearsals

What’s more, it works as a timer!

You can tell your audience that you’re only going to give them three minutes but getting them to stop at the end is something of a shocker for them, however you do it – but if you’ve got a three minute piece of music that clearly signals the end of the three minutes as it approaches, it’s very helpful. (A countdown timer on your screen works, but it’s a bit officious/crude but also less effective – anyone looking at the countdown timer isn’t looking at their partner in the audience!)

What can go wrong with music in your presentations – logistics?

waveform in blue of a presentation audio

Let’s start with the obvious. If you can’t make the music play well you’re worse than wasting your time. Bad-sounding music will undo all the good things about music in your presentation. In fact it’s worse, because it actively annoys people and makes them think you’re not technically competent. (And unfortunately people make the assumption that if you’re not competent as a presenter, then your material is less reliably too – after all, says your audience’s subconscious – if they can’t work a laptop well enough to play music properly, how can we trust them to use that laptop to crunched the numbers they’re putting on their slides?!)

Most projectors and TVs will take music and play it. You need to have the right cables and figure out to how to use the damned things (they’re all different!) to be able to control the volume and so on, but…
… but the sound quality they have isn’t necessarily helpful to your presentation. Something tiny and without any bass will stress people.

My advice is two-fold:

  • get there well in advance of your audience (not just before your presentation time, but ahead of your audience!) with enough time to test thing
  • take your own speakers
bluetooth speaker for your presentation's music

Let’s talk about that latter idea for a moment – small, portable, bluetooth speakers can give a really good sound these days and it’s something you can test and set up in the comfort of your own office before you go to the venue. You’re not reliant on the venue’s kit.

Pro- tip – don’t automatically have the speaker right at the front, next to your computer. That might be the right place to put it, but for lots of venues a better place is on a chair or a desk a few rows into the audience. That way the sound carries better to the people at the back. (It also looks slicker – so you at least look like you know what you’re doing! 🙂 )

Less obvious presentation problem – the psychological one

The whole point of music is that it hits you in your emotions. You know that – you’ve got a favourite song, just like everyone else (though it’s probably different to everyone else’s). Music is supposed to be like that.

That’s it’s strength in presentations but also a significant ‘gotcha’. Imagine you’re using some background music for a audience exercise, or to give atmosphere before you start (or even as walk-on music if you’re in the big leagues)… and the music you use is someone’s favourite song… or the song they played at their father’s funeral, or … you get the idea.

Music with that kind of emotional impact is a pain, as it pretty much stops that person concentrating on what you’re saying while they process their emotions.

Here’s my solution – use obscure music. If no one has heard of the music before, no one can have it as their favourite song.

In an ideal world, of course, you’d have it composed (or compose it yourself) especially for you, so that no one could know about it, but that’s either going to cost you time or cost you money!

Pro-tip – make it instrumental. That way two good things happen. The first is that it’s less intrusive for your audience; and secondly, you’ll never risk the embarrassment of inappropriate lyrics. It might not be something rude, but it could just be something someone objects to in some very personal way… and before you ask, yes, that’s the voice of experience.

Finally, there’s the problem that your audience might just not like it. Use your common sense here but don’t use the idea as an excuse. My experience is that the reason no one uses music in their presentation in most organisations is because no one else is… and when they try it (and get it right!) it’s a real enhancement to their presentation’s impact!

Wrapping up

So what do you think? How do you use music in your presentations? If you don’t, could you? Should you?

The answer is ‘probably’ – the real question is ‘how’…

2 Replies to “How to use music to make better presentations”

  1. Such a lot of fab advice! I love the emphasis you’ve put on the music. In the past I’d have played any old thing, but you’ve convinced me to pick something instrumental that would set the scene for the day/ presentation.

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